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Meet the Birkbecks - esteemed landowners, Barclay founders and rewilding enthusiasts

Updated: 6 days ago

Who Owns Norfolk's research recently identified that the bucolic and expansive ~9,000 acre West Acre Estate is one of the largest remaining country estates in Norfolk. It is owned by the Birkbeck family, as it has been for over 120 years, but of whom there is strangely very little available online information. When the gentry-led Wild East launched onto the local conservation scene, we were surprised to hear that this was spearheaded by another Birkbeck, Olly, who owns the 2,300 acre Little Massingham Estate, just a short 10 minute drive from West Acre. Despite the online information gap, we surmised that the Birkbecks are one of Norfolk's major landowning dynasties. But when and how? How did the Birkbecks family of Norfolk acquire enough wealth to elevate themselves to the status of landed gentry?


The first glimpse of a bountiful pedigree came from a 2010 article detailing an art auction of various works collected over the centuries in West Acre's country manor, High House, which used to be the primary country seat of the Birkbeck dynasty. This pile, built in the 1700s, was sold to the cosmically successful British sculptor Anthony Gormley for GBP 3 million in 2010. The article in question stated that 'the Birkbecks' ancestors were wool staplers, merchants and bankers, who moved to King's Lynn in the 18th century and established a formidable banking partnership with the Gurney family.' The Gurney family, as most with an interest in Norfolk history will know, set up a Norwich-based banking business that grew to opulent proportions and gained them the reputation as one of Britain's richest families. The Gurney bank was potentially the largest, if not the 2nd largest, of the Quaker-led banks that merged to become Barclays In 1896 (source). The Gurneys, too, remain significant Norfolk landowners, as we shall detail at a later date. The Birkbecks involvement with the Gurney and Barclay banking families (alongside the Buxton family, another part of this dynasty that remain well endowed on the land front) is confirmed by the modern Barclays Bank's own website - see this link for details.


High House of West Acre, replete with Anthony Gormley statues (taken in 2020)


As our research continued, we found even more landholdings bought with the wealth engendered by the Birkbecks' capitalist energies. These are listed below, but note this list is likely unexhaustive:

  • West Acre Estate (~9,000 acres) - bought by the Birkbecks of West Acre in 1898. High House, an almost stately country manor, was sold in 2010.

  • Kinlochhourn Estate (6,500 acres) - owned by the Birkbecks of West Acre (date of purchase unknown).

  • Little Massingham Estate (~2,300 acres), owned by Olly Birkbeck of WildEast, date of purchase likely some time between 1860 and 1900, as explored below).

  • Elmham House Estate (now a much diminished 350 acres) - bought by one Emily Birkbeck in 1926, whereafter it passed to her grandson Robin Don, then passed to his daughter Joanna Don, now known as Joanna Howard, who is married to Thomas Fitzalan-Howard, the nephew of the 17th Duke of Norfolk (see our Google Sheets for further information). The relation of the Emily Birkbeck to the West Acre / Little Massingham Birkbecks is unknown at this stage.

  • Rippon Hall Farm, near Hevingham (size - unknown). Owned by June Shaw (nee Birkbeck), who inherited it from her sister Diana Birkbeck, who died in 2012, aged 78. Diana inherited the farm and Rippon Hall from her father, Christopher Birkbeck. She was born in 1933, the 3rd daughter of Christopher, OBE and Justice of the Peace, born in 1889, and his wife Rosamund Alice Barclay, scion of the landed Barclay family of Desnage Lodge, Higham, in Suffolk (source - Peerage News).

  • Litcham Hall - a beautiful country house but without attached estate lands - owned by John Birkbeck, the father of Olly Birkbeck, mentioned above.

Other estates that appear to have been held by branches of the Birkbeck family of Norfolk but have since been sold on include Stoke Holy Cross and Stratton Strawless (source).


As the list of properties above must make clear, the Birkbecks became incredibly rich landowners through their banking endeavors. A historic source states that, on his death in 1931, one Henry Birkbeck left a 'huge fortune' (source - Ysabel Birkbeck's Wikipedia). Various sources note them as a 'prosperous' family (source). That all adds up - one would expect the founders of Barclays, one of the UK's major extant banks, to have pocketed a severe amount of cash. This begs another question - where did the Birkbecks come from? The Gurneys are descended from a Normal baron who helped William the Conqueror storm England in 1066 and were given lands in Norfolk as a reward (source). What of the Birkbecks?


The answer to this question can be found in some, on reflection quite niche, literature. The key sources we have used are:


The Birkbecks of Little Massingham Estate

Let's focus first on Olly Birkbeck of Little Massingham Estate, now a prime mover on the East Anglian conservation set via the WildEast initiative. The Peerage website states that Oliver was born in 1973, the only son of John Birkbeck, part of a potentially non-landed branch of the Birkbeck dynasty who was nonetheless able to buy the reasonably grand Litcham Hall (albeit with no attached estate) in 1967 (source), named for the peaceful village in which it is nestled. John was born in 1936, the second of two sons of Colonel Oliver Birkbeck. Colonel Oliver Birkbeck was born in 1893, the eldest of two sons of Edward Lewis Birkbeck. Edward was born in 1860 and died in 1901, the youngest of three sons of one Henry Birkbeck and Mary Anne (nee Hamond, of the prosperous Hamond Norfolk gentry family) (source - Family Search). This Henry Birkbeck reportedly lived from 1821 to 1895 (source). He was the eldest of five sons (source -Geneagraphie) of another Henry Birkbeck and one Jane Gurney, who lived from 1787 to 1848 (source - Geni). This 1787 Henry Birkbeck was the only son of John Birkbeck and one Martha Gurney (see the Gurney theme emerging) - John lived from 1747 to 1808 (source). As we will find out, it was the 1747 John who established the Birkbecks as a notable, affluent and landed Norfolk family.


A recent news article regarding Olly Birkbeck and the WildEast movement indicates that Olly inherited the estate, somewhat unexpectedly, from his aunt on her death in 2016 (source - Monga Bay). We know from the EDP that his aunt was one Mary Birkbeck (source - EDP), born in 1932, who inherited the estate in 1992 on the death of her mother. Mary was the eldest daughter of the above mentioned Colonel Oliver Birkbeck (source - Peerage), but she had an elder brother - it is unclear why primogeniture was not applied to their inheritance.


Little Massingham House - sizeable not overdone


We know from the 'Birkbecks of Westmorland' pedigree that the 1747 John Birkbeck was the first Birkbeck to move to Norfolk. He heralded from a Quaker banking family in Settle, Yorkshire, the third of many sons of one William Birkbeck (source - Birkbeck pedigree), who had set up a bank and were involved in other mercantile affairs. Probably via his Quaker banking enterprises, John became familiar with the Gurneys (Quaker bankers in Norfolk) and married Martha Gurney, the daughter of Henry Gurney, who co-founded the Gurney Bank. In January 1782, he became a partner in the Lynn branch of the Norwich Gurney bank, which on that day was started as Gurneys, Birkbeck, and Co., and went to live in the Bank House at Lynn (source). He bought a country house at Hunstanton, and the Birkbecks have remained part of Norfolk's landed set ever since.


On an interesting side note, the Settle Birkbecks from which John was descended also gave rise to another man of enterprise and attainment, one George Birkbeck, the polymath who founded Birkbeck University (source).


When did Little Massingham Estate become part of the Birkbeck property empire? Its website says it was bought in the 1800s, and that Little Massingham House was built by the current incumbent Oliver’s great grandmother at the end of the 19th century. Oliver's great grandfather on the Birkbeck side was Edward Lewis Birkbeck (1860 - 1901). He was the third son of the 1821 to 1895 Henry Birkbeck, who had inherited Stoke Holy Cross Estate* and a partnership the Gurney Birkbeck bank in 1842 from his Gurney maternal grandfather. The 1821 Henry was the eldest of the 1787 Henry, himself the eldest son of the 1747 John Birkbeck, the wildly successful banker who established the Norfolk branch of the Birkbecks. Edward Lewis' elder brother, the 1853 Henry Birkbeck, bought the large West Acre Estate in 1898.


The 1787 Henry Birkbeck, born at Keswick Old Hall - source - Birkbeck pedigree


It seems likely, therefore, that Little Massingham Estate was bought by Edward Lewis Birkbeck (the younger brother of the 1853 Henry Birkbeck, who bought West Acre Estate) using money from an inheritance or perhaps from a family banking partnership, if he held one. Edward Lewis Birkbeck lived from 1860 to 1901, so Little Massingham was probably acquired in this time, at some point in his adult life, which would align with the vague dates mentioned on the Little Massingham Estate website.


*Note: the Stoke Holy Cross estate passed to the sons from the 1821 Henry's second marriage to Ethelreda Brown ffolkes, Martin and Geoffrey Birkbeck, though they apparently had to raise a mortgage to acquire this estate from their brothers (source - Stoke Hall and the Birkbecks).


The Birkbecks of West Acre Estate

Due to primogeniture, the 1821 Henry Birkbeck likely inherited the bulk of the 1747 John Birkbeck's (his grandfather's) wealth. He married Mary Anne Hamond (source) in 1840, daughter of the well to do landowning gentry Hamond family who then owned West Acre Estate. The 1821 Henry's son (and Edward Lewis' eldest brother), the 1853 - 1930 Henry Birkbeck, bought West Acre Estate in 1898 from Thomas Astley Horace Hamond (source - Landed families of Britain and Ireland), who appears to have lived from 1846 - 1917 (Source - Flickr). Thomas Astley Horace Hamond was therefore the 1853 Henry Birbeck's uncle (source - Ancestry). The reason for the purchase is unknown, but as said before the Birkbeck's were skillful capitalists and had grown immensely rich from their banking enterprises, whilst the Hamonds were old fashioned and increasingly eccentric estate owners who derived their income primarily from agriculture and would therefore have been hit hard by the Great Depression of British Agriculture (1873 - 1896). What happened to the purchase price of West Acre Estate after 1898 is unknown - no records exist as to what Thomas Astley Horace Hamond did with this presumably rather large fortune (source - Wikimedia Commons). It is unclear if he had children.


The River Nar as it passes through West Acre Estate (taken in 2020)


The more recent ancestry of the landowning Birkbecks of West Acre Estate is more straightforward, due to an available online history of West Acre Estate's High House, the country manor that was sold by the Birkbecks to Anthony Gormley in 2010.


From this history we know that West Acre Estate was passed to the current Birkbeck by his father, another Henry Birkbeck (1952 - present), who was the son of another Henry Birkbeck (1915 - 2003) (known as 'Captain Birkbeck' to West Acre villagers when he was alive), who was the son of another Henry Birkbeck (1885 - 1936), who was the son of the 1853 Henry Birkbeck, who had bought West Acre Estate and was mentioned in the above genealogy of the Little Massingham Birkbecks. Presumably primogeniture was applied to the West Acre inheritance and the the above mentioned Birkbecks are each the eldest son of their parents. The 1853 Henry (see Geneagraphie) who bought West Acre Estate is therefore the great-great-grandfather of the current owner. The 1853 Henry Birkbeck is also the eldest son of the 1821 Henry Birkbeck, himself the senior branch of the Birkbeck line descended from the progenitor of the Norfolk Birkbecks, the 1747 John Birkbeck. The West Acre Birkbecks are therefore the senior branch of the Norfolk Birkbecks in terms of lineage, which helps to explain why they are still in command of the vast 9,000 acre West Acre and the 6,500 acre Scottish hunting estate at Kinlochhourn, whereas the other Birkbeck branches have had to make do with rather less. The Little Massingham Birkbecks own just 2,300 acres and the Rippon Hall Birkbecks, even less.


Based on the above, the last shared ancestor of the current owners of the West Acre Estate and the Little Massingham Estate was the 1821 Henry Birkbeck and his wife Mary Hammond (his eldest son, the 1853 Henry, bought West Acre, whilst his third son, the 1860 Edward Birkbeck, bought Little Massingham). This shared ancestor is their great-great-great-grandfather, so they are fourth cousins. One might expect these members of the same landed dynasties to be close, but how many people actually know their fourth cousins?


Several famous-ish personas pop up in connection with the West Acre Birkbecks. Ysabel Birkbeck, nee Elwes, (1859–1934) was a British toymaker and philanthropist, best known as founder of the notable Westacre Dolls' House company which manufactured dolls' house furniture. She married the 1853 Henry Birkbeck, and was herself the daughter of a local gentry family, the Elwes of Congham Estate, who had owned this estate since 1813, when it was passed to them via the dowry of Susan Hamond, part of the Hamond dynasty mentioned above (the 1853 Henry's mother was also a Hamond) (source).



High House, West Acre: the gallery in 1874. Image: Historic England.


The Birkbecks of Settle, Yorkshire

As mentioned above, the 1747 John Birkbeck was the progenitor of the Norfolk branch of the formidable Birkbeck dynasty (source), having moved down from his family's hub of Settle in 1782. He made his money in banking, as we noted above. But who was he? A self-made upstart or indeed himself part of an older prosperous lineage?


It seems perhaps the latter, and the Birkbecks affluence is likely even older than we imagined. John was the third of many sons of one William Birkbeck (source - Birkbeck pedigree), a banker and merchant born in 1705 in Settle (source). He was the eldest son of another William Birkbeck (likely born in 1678 - see Birkbeck pedigree), who came to Settle from Deepgill (near Kirkby Stephen in Cumbria) and was living there by 1698, who is described as the 'younger son of a yeoman', (note: a yeoman refers to a prosperous farmer who owns his own land and did not need to rent land off a larger landowner).


For the younger son of a yeoman the 1678 William inherited a decent sum from his father, according to the 1890 Birkbeck Pedigree. Once in Settle by 1698, the 1678 William set about making his name: 'the business which he carried on at Settle as a woollen and general merchant was very successful, and later on, to an extensive trade in wool stapling was added the taking money on deposit, making loans, and the sale of bills on London, which gradually grew into a banking business. His description at his marriage in the Friends' Register was " Glover and Fellmonger"' (see 1890 Birkbeck Pedigree). To our knowledge this is where the real blessed fortunes of the modern Birkbeck dynasty first began - successes which elevated them from prosperous yeomen to men of fantastic wealth. This must have taken place shortly after 1698. The 1678 William died in 1751.


Whilst the 1747 John Birkbeck moved to Norfolk, his elder brother (the 1745 William Birkbeck - see 1890 Birkbeck Pedigree) stayed in Settle to continue the family banking and general merchant business started by his grandfather, the 1678 William Birkbeck. He amalgamated this bank with another local bank to form the Craven Bank in 1791. His second son, one Dr George Birkbeck (born in Settle in 1776), founded the Mechanics' Institution, of which he was the first President in 1824 : it was afterwards called in his honour the Birkbeck Institution. In 1827 he was one of the founders of University College, London.


George Birkbeck (born in Settle in 1776) by Samuel Lane. Oil, 1830. Founder of Birkbeck University and University College London


To add another noted Settle Birkbeck to the pedigree, one Morris Birkbeck, born in 1734 in Settle as the eldest son of the 1705 William Birkbeck (though by a different mother to the William and John Birkbecks mentioned above), was embarking on property enterprises in the British colonies in North America, purchasing 1,280 acres near New Garden in North Carolina in 1773 (though whether this survived the American War of Independence in 1775 is unclear). His son, another Morris Birkbeck (born in 1764 in Wanborough Surrey), was by 1794 living at Wanborough, where he had a large farm of 1,600 acres, and was considered a 'gentleman farmer of the first order, and in advance of his age.' He had a flock of Merino sheep, apparently their first introduction into England. In 1817, he emigrated to the USA, buying a large number of acres in the newly formed Illinois territory, in order to set up a utopian community free from the repression of England (source - Wikipedia). His various adventures are fascinating, including the foundation of the town of New Albion, and cannot all be listed here.


The fate of the Settle Birkbecks is unclear. One John Birkbeck, 1817 - 1890, born in Settle and who attended the local Giggleswick School, is noted as a partner in the family Craven Bank. Interesting note: the Craven Bank, in addition to the Gurney's Bank of Norfolk, also ended up joining Barclays, though much later in 1968, by way of the Martins Bank (source - Barclays). His family tree can be found on WikiTree (source - WikiTree). One Major-General Sir William Henry Birkbeck, 1863 - 1929, was born in Settle to one Joseph Birkbeck (also a banker) (source - Wikipedia) and made his name fighting the Boers in the Second Boer War. His son, Theodore Henry Birkbeck (1911 - 1976), also became a Major-General who saw service in WWII, Kenya, Burma and Palestine (source - Wikipedia). It is unclear if Theodore was a Settle man. Their relation to the 1817 John Birkbeck cannot be deduced from online materials.


Major-General Sir William Henry Birkbeck of Settle, Yorkshire,, KCB, CMG (8 April 1863 – 16 April 1929) in 1916. Source - Wikiwand.


No recent online materials link the Birkbeck family to Settle. And, despite their clear success in banking, WON has not uncovered any large land holding held by the Birkbecks in Yorkshire. It is possible that, unlike their Norfolk cousins, the Settle Birkbecks did not seek to assimilate into the England's landed gentry class. Perhaps they were less successful. Their banking partnership, the Craven Bank, either merged or was acquired by the Bank of Liverpool in 1906 (source - Wikipedia), which itself merged with Martins Bank in 1918 (source - Wikipedia). Perhaps these mergers, in some way or another, severed the Birkbecks from control of the bank and lead to their relative decline, though at this stage this is just speculation. One does wonder what happened this prominent branch of the Birkbeck dynasty, for which a significant British university is named.


Other Notable Birkbecks

The 1787 Henry Birkbeck was the father of another notable Birkbeck, Sir Edward Birkbeck, the 1st Baronet (source). The baronetage became extinct on his death, indicating he had no heirs (source). He owned Horstead Hall Estate, but what became of this estate is not known.


Conclusion

There you have it, a fairly detailed history of the West Acre Birkbecks and Olly Birkbeck of Little Massingham. The West Acre Birkbecks remain Norfolk's preeminent gentry family; whereas much of Norfolk's gentry vanished in the early 20th Century due to agricultural depression and inheritance taxes, the Birkbecks utilized their banking riches to weather the storm. In 2022, the only private landowners with more Norfolk land than the Birkbecks were one royal (King Charles III, owner of the 20,000 acre Sandringham Estate), one member of the titled peerage (Thomas Coke, 8th Earl of Leicester, owner of the 25,000 Holkham Estate) and a hedge fund billionaire (Count Padulli di Vighignolo, who owns 13,485 acres across numerous farms and estates). In terms of untitled landed aristocrats, the Birkbecks acreages far outweigh those of other surviving Norfolk gentry families and indeed even outweigh the holdings of aristocrats with more prestigious titles, such as the 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley, the 8th Earl of Romney and the 14th Earl Ferrers. Indeed, if you count their Scottish acres, the West Acre Birkbecks aren't even that far behind Lord Leicester.


Via various marriages the Birkbecks are closely related to the Gurney and Buxton families, famed for both their wealth but also their progressive bent - numerous anti-slavery and social reform campaigners belong to this dynasty (source - Wikipedia). A progressive vein must run through this notable family - of the four landowner led rewilding projects in Norfolk, two have been initiative by Birkbecks. Plus, via the WildEast initiative, Olly Birkbeck is helping to lead the restoration of nature across East Anglia. Norfolk would be much better off if more of its landowners had this sort of awareness and sense of responsibility.


Whilst by almost anyone's standards, the Birkbecks remain extravagantly affluent, the real heyday of this family appear to be over - it is unlikely that they could go on an estate purchasing spree today as their ancestors did in the 19th Century. And, in 2010, in order to raise cash, the family sought to sell off their largest country manor and ~1,000 acres of attached land (in the end, only the manor sold), suggesting their landed interest may be in gradual decline. It will be fascinating to track this landed dynasty, and their rewilding initiatives, as they navigate the various trials of the 21st Century.


Bucolic scenes of West Acre Estate's rewilding project, the largest in Norfolk (taken in 2022)

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